A TikTokker has received heavy criticism after showing off his extensive human bone collection, including fetus skulls and a wall of human spines.
The TikTok user, who makes videos under his company name Jonsbones, explains that he studies osteology, specializing in the medical bone trade. Over a series of videos, "Jon Jon" has also shown his viewers his wall of skulls, as well as some rarer items he has in his personal collection.
In one video, he runs (and skateboards) holding human remains in a series of costumes in a video montage paying tribute to an earlier TikTok meme.
As well as criticisms of his treatment of human remains, internet users (including other bone collectors and archaeologists) have raised questions about exactly where his bone collection has come from.
He stressed in one video how it's perfectly legal to buy, sell and collect human bones in the US:
"In the US, there's no federal regulation against the ownership, sale, or possession of human osteology, so it's completely legal."
"The question [...] isn't about the legality of the situation, it's more about the morality," one TikTokker responded. "Because whether you purchased the bones, or whether they were donated, or whether they were obtained through some other means, the question on everyone's mind is still: whose bones are those? Why do you have them? Why were their bones available for purchase and/or trade?"
Given the murky past of the skeleton trade – and the illicit trade that still goes on today – these are all legitimate questions to raise. In another video, he explained that the specimens were sourced mainly from India, as well as China and Russia.
India, as he acknowledges, has a particularly grim history in regards to the purchase and sales of remains. Until 1985, it was legal for people in the country to sell their remains to science, which could then be exported all over the world, including to the US. The problem was two-fold:
One, it ended up being exploitative, with mainly the poor and vulnerable who would sell their remains.
"Many of these come from the remains of marginalized castes and tribes in India," as one user put it. "As some of these communities either do not cremate, cannot afford to/are not allowed to, or are forced to sell the remains of their loved ones into the black market."
Two: it ended up incentivizing the collection of bones, through graverobbing and other, even worse, means. India outlawed the export of human parts in 1986 after a dealer was caught selling over 1,500 child skeletons of unknown origin, prompting concerns that people may have been murdered for them – though illegal trade still continues in India and elsewhere.
Jon Jon says that the aim of Jonsbones is to locate specimens that arrived before the export was banned, sell them back to the medical community, and make osteology more accessible.
This too has drawn skepticism and criticism.
"I think what jonsbones is doing is highly unethical," Assistant Anatomy Professor and Bioarcheologist Robyn Wakefield Murp said in a TikTok video. "Human remains should never be sold. There are legitimate, ethical ways for institutions and researchers to obtain human bodies for research, and that is through cadaveric donation programs."
"Cadaveric donation programs are run by non-profits and research institutions, not by private individuals. They don't sell human remains, they charge a nominal fee for the processing of cadavers or [...] clean bone specimens. They are not individuals that operate for profit."
In China, she explains, the remains often come from people (potentially including political prisoners) executed by the state, and they were taken without consent.
As others have pointed out, even if the bones came from before the law was changed, it's ethically dubious to continue to profit off their remains.
When there are sources of cadavers who have given their informed consent (prior to death, of course), many osteologists are of the opinion that sales through private collections are unethical or unnecessary. Even when consent for sale to a private collector is there, concerns have been raised by those in the profession about how those bones are being used.
Something to think about next time someone shows you their wall of human spines.
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